Inventing a New World

As the sun is setting into the Pacific Ocean at the end the terminus of Western Civilization, Western Civilization ends here in California at Venice Beach, so we stood there inventing a new world…

                                                                                                                                                 Ray Manzarek

I had been anxiously awaiting Stewart Brand’s scheduled talk at The Long Now which he gave this last Tuesday. Revive and Restore Brand’s project which will explore the prospect of bringing back extinct species is just the latest project of this intellectual maverick and pied-piper of the digital, and what may now be the opening rounds of the biological age. Brand has been a sort of weathervane for the cultural winds of American, or rather a very influential subset of American culture.

He began his career as an ecologist, but quickly became a sort of Forrest Gump of the major cultural and technological currents appearing out of San Francisco and what would become known as Silicon Valley- trails that radiated outward to influence both America and the larger world.

He makes an appearance in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test due to his association with Ken Kesey’s Merry Tricksters, and founded the hippie back to the land bible- The Whole Earth Catalog- a project which a technology giant like Steve Jobs could cite as one of his inspirations. We have Brand to thank for the first iconic pictures of our “big blue marble” from space, for he led a public campaign for NASA to release these photos of earth it had kept secret.

It is somewhat poignant that Brand made his first entry into public consciousness here with the Apollo moon landings. The American foray to the moon proved to be the capstone, rather than as was thought at the time a stepping stone, on a great world- civilizational project to settle the worlds beyond earth. It was a project that required the mass resources of the state and it capacity for committing itself to goals that spanned across generations. This was the same state that Brand and his generation feared, quite rightly, might just end up killing us all. Indeed, the very technologies which threatened the world with thermonuclear armageddon brought us into earth orbit and allowed humans to leave their footprints on our beloved moon.

States don’t do projects like the Apollo missions anymore. The only consolation being that they don’t threaten to kill us off in a nuclear holocaust either. Some saw this twilight coming or helped it along. Brand and his fellow travelers represented a generational rebellion against the “system” and the “establishment” for the way it both crushed individuals and the kinds of existential risks it posed to both humanity and the natural world. What was odd about Brand in this mix of rebels and hippies was the instrument he chose to be the primary tool against the system wasn’t psychedelic drugs or music but the computer- a device that up until then in the form of corporate and government mainframes was associated with most dehumanizing features of the system itself- turning human being into “numbers”.

In the 1970s and 80s Brand helped create the idea that computers and computer networks could be transformed into a liberating force of individual empowerment and personal exploration, and to this effect not only brought hackers to public attention, but helped establish another bible, this one for the Internet during the period of the dotcom boom of the 1990s, Wired Magazine.

In the late 1990s Brand launched yet another bold project, The Long Now Foundation, whose mission is to take a long term perspective of human affairs- 10,000 years into the human past and 10,000 years into its future. As he himself put it:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

The Long Now Foundation often deals with topics which the state is no longer up to or those which have such a global aspect that it’s difficult to frame them within the context of territorially defined states at all.

Revive and Restore seem like a poignant culmination point for the 74 year old Brand bringing together his first love of ecology, his belief in the utopian potential of technology, and his interest in understanding and coming up with solutions to problems within a wide historical arc. The effort to revive extinct species, not just in zoos, but in the context of restored habitats is a perfect long term project that would take multiple generations to achieve. It seeks to undo some of the damage from our ancestors not just from the recent past, as is the case from extinctions in the early early part of the last century such as the Passenger Pigeon and the Tasmanian Tiger, but going back to our spear throwing ancestors who killed off megafauna such as the Woolly Mammoth  at the very beginning of Brand’s long now.

The world would be a better place if there were more Stewart Brands, nevertheless, I think it might be wise to consider not so much his current project as the assumptions that have been at the root of most of them, assumptions he brought from the commune movement of the early 1970s whose attitude towards the political world was that it was rotten to the core and so- the hell with it.

These were assumptions that would be widely shared among a certain segment of the left- represented by Brand and his fellow travelers, and even more so by the right beginning with the same man who presided as governor of the tie- dyed California of Brand’s young adulthood, Ronald Reagan. Both would so revolutionize the world that by the early 21st century techno-philanthropists and visionaries of the kind that surround Brand and his projects would be trying to fulfill many of the roles that were formerly the task of governments-  the founders of corporate titans whose very nature as global entities under constant innovative pressure left traditional forms of government starved of the very funds that allow it to function.

The argument that Brand and the people around him were largely responsible for our ideas that digital technology would be a liberating force but had they also brought into this discourse a kind of disconnectedness from surrounding social reality has been made before, and excellently, by Fred Turner in his From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Yes, the internet and personal digital technology are liberating, but the idea that they are purely so can only be supported when one ignores the underlying social reality upon which they rest. Smart phones in our hands or computers on our desktops bring with them all sorts of potential, but one needs to remember that there are other, and often low paid, human beings who make such things. The communications revolution allows and amazing degree of personal empowerment, but it has also run hand in glove with perhaps the largest explosion of economic inequality in the history of both the United States and the larger world.

The Long Now’s Revive and Restore is a sexy project that has managed to get a lot of press, yet, there is a danger that the digerati are merely building the 21st century version of the Egyptian pyramids- lasting monuments that nonetheless end up sapping. or at least fail to support, the society underneath them. Just as needed are efforts to gather the San Francisco elites who flock to The Long Now’s wonderful seminars to discuss how to get their companies revenue into the hands of governments, or at least those parts of the government that are doing things the digerati consider worthwhile. This is the lesson to be drawn from the recent tax scandal involving Apple, which through clever accounting tricks that are ubiquitous across the large multi-national companies was able to avoid tens of billions in taxes.

Recovering the billions in taxes lost from Apple alone would allow us to do far more in the effort to protect at risk species and habitats than any effort to revive lost species. With 10 billion dollars we could triple the budget of NOAA from 5 to 15 billion. That would certainly help at risk marine life and habitats, but if our goal was to confront extinction directly, recovering just 10 billion from Apple would allow us to triple the combined budget for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program.

It is certainly the case that the tech-giants- Apple, Google, Microsoft,  Facebook and Amazon along with all the great American multinationals are now global companies to an extent that being able to capture some of their revenue for the purpose of supporting the community from which they spring might be well nigh impossible. It is also the case that forums such as The Long Now Foundation, the TED Conference, or most of all The World Economic Forum at Davos are some of the few places, almost all of them dominated by non-government actors, where the global aspects of many of our problems are acknowledged and the idea of a common future for humanity- the very idea Brand wanted to get across by pushing NASA to publish its photos of earth from space- embraced. That is, global intellectual and business elites realize there is need for global coordination and action across a whole range of problems if humanity is to prosper and some might argue even survive.

As Peter Diamandis points out in his Abundance, today’s economic titans, a great number of which rose to prominence on the back of the computer revolution foreseen and pushed forward by Brand, are much more socially conscious than any of their predecessors. Today’s elites are not only aware of global problems they are desperate to do something meaningful to address them. Yet, in presenting this group of innovators whom Diamandis calls “techno-philanthropists” as capable of solving the world’s problems almost single handedly, through the application of the same technological and entrepreneurial methods through which they built their high tech companies, Diamandis distorts the relationship between techno-philanthropists and the state by overplaying the impact of the former and almost ignoring the impact of the latter.

From Christina Freeland’s insightful book, Plutocrats, here is Bill Gates head of the largest and most laudable of the techno-philanthropist on the relationship between government and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Our foundation tends to fund more of the up-front discovery work, and we’re a partner in delivery, but government funding is the biggests. Take delivering AIDS medicine. We did the pilot studies that you could deliver ARBs [angiotensin II receptor blockers] in Africa, and then PEPFAR [the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U.S. government program which is five billion [dollars] a year, which is way more than our whole program, just that one U.S. government help program- just one country- came in and scaled up from that. (75-76)

The dangers of the institutions created and supported by government are that they will degenerate as rules and procedures accumulate over time into the kinds of arbitrary bureaucracy presented in Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Castle where the system has become so detached from its original purpose to be not only incomprehensible but pointless. The second danger is that those who belong to such institutions will confuse the well being of the institution and its members with the goals of the institution itself.

The innovative nature of technological-philanthropy might be able to break through the Byzantine walls of bureaucracies that have themselves now become part of the problem- you can see something like this in The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge to entrenched educational interests such as teacher’s unions. But this isn’t the whole story.

The types of institutions that spring from government or something like government are necessary for the slow plodding work of pursuing goals over multi-generational spans of time. Their existence is necessary for any task we hope to accomplish that cannot be achieved all in one go. These are precisely the types of problems Brand believes society is no longer addressing- the inspiration behind his organization The Long Now.

Added to this aspect of being multi-generational problems many of the world’s challenges are, as the current elites recognize, global in scope. Climate change is a global problem that will not be solved overnight, the same can be said for the threat from asteroids or pandemics, or the sixth great extinction. Many security problems now have a global aspect as will the need to find a working modus vivendi with potentially transformative technologies such as synthetic biology. The pictures of our shared earth that Brand pressured NASA to publish also remind us that the natural beauty of the earth and even its cultural and historical legacy is something all of us on our small world share and need to collectively preserve.

One of our primary problems is how to develop and support the kinds of international institutions that are necessary for our new global world in an era dominated by multinational corporations that skillfully avoid taxation by “locating” in the country with the lowest tax rate?

Here is an idea: perhaps we could initiate a global tithe on these world spanning corporations, a minimum tax that would be funneled into existing international institutions and perhaps new ones that support the long term future of humanity along with the preservation of the biosphere and the legacy of life on earth in all its aspects. This would truly be a Long Now type endeavor one that would help close the rift between the new innovative elites and the “establishment” they abandoned in the heady utopianism of the late 20th century.

The Far Futures Project

Zodiac Man 1413

When I was a kid there was a series on Nostradamus narrated by an Orson Welles surrounded in cigar smoke and false gravitas. I had not seen The Man Who Saw Tomorrow for over 30 years, though thanks to the miracle of Youtube I was able to find it here.  Amazingly enough, I still remember Part 9 of the series in which the blue- turbaned, Islamic, 3rd antichrist allied with the Soviet Union plunges the world into thermonuclear war. I also remember the ending- scenes of budding flowers and sunshine signaling the rebirth of nature and humanity, a period of peace and prosperity to last 1,000 years. I think what must have made an impression on my young mind was the time frame of Nostradamus’ supposed predictions- with the Third World War to start sometime between the years 1994-1999, a time frame that was just close enough to scare the bejesus out of an already anxiety prone 9 year old. Thankfully, I was able to escape the latent fear induced by this not so well produced premonition when the USSR went belly up in 1991. Predicting the future is a tough job.

And what does it mean to predict the future anyway? Any idea that the future is somehow foreseeable seems to rely on some concept of determinism, but it’s not quite clear that all aspects of existence experienced by human beings are equally deterministic. Astrology seems to be a good example of how this works. Some of the things we experience do indeed seem to be determined, or better, their course stays essentially the same over vast stretches of time. It makes sense, even though it doesn’t work, to repackage and apply this determinism at the human level giving us a false but confidence building sense of control. The crazy thing, at least in terms of the future of society as opposed to the future of individuals,  is that human beings seem prone to making predictions with bad outcomes, just consult the prophet of your choice. So, one wonders why something that is supposed to relieve anxiety- knowing what will happen- ends up doing the exact opposite and instead fills us with nostrodemian dred?

Maybe its all about the scale of the market. Palm readers who inform too many of their customers that their lives are about to go into the toilet probably go out of business pretty fast. When you’re dealing with mass markets though- fear sells. Better to write a book on the looming terrorist threat than one on just how peaceful modern societies are. You get more eyeballs when your piece has the word armageddon in the title than if it contains the word utopia.

Then there is the question of time horizon. As Stewart Brand suggested to the religious scholar Elaine Pagels the attraction of the ambiguity of a “prophetic” text like the Book of Revelation is that one can insert one’s own mortal timeline into it. Ray Kurzweil isn’t the first to predict the end of normal human affairs perilously close to the limit of his own likely lifespan.

Perhaps almost all predictions regarding the future are merely reflections of our own current anxieties, but this is not to say that our relationship to the future is merely all in our heads. Human beings and our societies exist along a continuum of time and this not only ties us to the what-is-not of the past but the what-is-not of the future as well. What we do today, if it proves relevant, will shape the future as much as the decisions made by those who preceded us shapes us today. To deny this is to deny something as real as the very present in front of us.

Yet, this future horizon is not merely something that applies to human civilization but to the earth and universe as a whole. Unless there is some cosmic mystery currently hidden from us, the earth will exists for something approaching 5 billion years before being consumed by the sun, and our universe, however dispersed because of expansion, will continue to have organized structures such as stars and galaxies- likely prerequisites for life- for far far longer than it has been in existence (13.5 billion years) into the realm of the unimaginable range of 100 trillion years.

There exists, then, a very likely future if not for our mortal selves or even humanity, for the cosmos and most likely life and intelligent life. We have something to predict about however silly such predictions will appear in retrospect. This gives us, I think, a great opportunity for a sort of “game”, an attempt to stretch our imaginations outward not so much in the hope that we can see like Welles’ Nostradamus the future that lies before for us so much as to see how broadly we can paint the canvas of what- might- be.

In this spirit, I invite you to participate in what I am calling The Far Futures Project.Those who wish can come up with their own predictions for the near and far future. Send them to farfuturesproject@gmail.com and I will post them on my blog Utopia or Dystopia. My only requirements are that you follow the template in terms of years found in my predictions below:  500, 10,000, 1 million, 1 billion, though I understand they will appear arbitrary to many. My second requirement is that you follow normal editorial standards with the awareness that these posts are geared towards general audience. Also, please provide some identifying information that will allow readers to connect with your ideas- especially links to your own work. My hope is to run the project for about a month, so here’s your chance.

You can see the first response to the call of  the project in this entry by my friend and fellow blogger James Cross here. 

As for me, here I go…

Rick Searle’s Far Future

500 years

The often painful transition that can be traced to changes in human society initiated by the industrial revolution in the 1800s has finally begun to reach equilibrium. Historians in the 2500s tend to see developments since the start of the industrial revolution as a set piece where humanity had to adjust itself to a new technological order, a new relationship with nature, new forms of inter-relations between and among peoples, and above all a need for humanity to decide both what it was and what it should be.

The technological question that the industrial revolution posed which took nearly 7 centuries to resolve was what would be the relationship between human beings and the rapidly evolving kingdom of machines?

Well before the 26th century there emerged a kind of modus-vivendi between human beings and machines, especially machines of the intelligent type. The employment crisis of the early to mid-21st century revolved around the widespread application of machine intelligence to all fields of economic, cultural, and political life, although no one yet could claim such machines possessed features of human intelligence such as consciousness.  True Artificial General Intelligence or AGI remained a ways off, and never really replicated human intelligence, but would prove to be something quite different.

The consequence of the exponentially increasing processing power of computers was the ability to automate almost any formerly human process from the most intellectually challenging – classical composition or scientific discovery to the most simple production procedure. The capacity of machines to do almost any conceivable type of work road atop the ability to tap into human networks and feedback systems resulting in a kind of symbiosis between human intelligence and machines that whatever its human component left far too many people without gainful employment and would prove unsustainable not only economically but emotionally.

Numerous solutions to this dilemma were tried until a genuine modus vivendi was achieved. One attempted solution was to hive off human life from machines by providing people with a guaranteed income and allowing them to opt out of economic, intellectual and cultural pursuits- a solution that at the end of the day proved unsatisfying for far too many to be sustainable.

Another attempted solution was to tie human intelligence even closer to the new forms of machine intelligence by fusing the human mind with that of machines. This solution proved not so much unsustainable as unreachable in the form it had been articulated. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that those parts of the human brain that were responsible for emotions, which human beings shared with other mammals, moved at such a glacial pace that they proved incompatible with the lightening fast cognition of machines. To propel emotional cognition faster seemed to inevitably result in various unwanted conditions from emotional deadening, to hyper-anxiety, to an accelerated sense of subjective time that canceled out the very longevity human beings had succeeded in creating.

The long lived humans of the 22th century embraced a slower and more reflective notion of time than their 21st century forebears and sought to limit machine intelligence from impinging on activities which embedded human life across the arch of time from the creation of art to the raising of children, the latter which came back into vogue after the prolonged “baby bust”.

Under what became the new post-capitalist order that took hold almost everywhere humans and machines were each given their unique domains based upon the question of scale and speed. Intelligent machines were extremely effective at running large scale entities- cities, armies, markets, coordinating reactions to pandemics and disasters for which the human mind was ill designed. There were also areas where the wetware of the brain proved far too slow- including moving human beings across space in the various incarnations of the 20th century automobile and airplane, fighting under conditions of modern, war or performing emergency surgery.

Machines were also able to fill dangerous (and degrading) economic niches human beings were ill suited to perform. This issue of scale and niche would prove the key to the future evolution of machines, an embedded tendency that someone in the far future when machines became the dominant “lifeform” in the universe would likely be unable to trace to its mundane economic and psychological origins.

A second question that had been raised by the industrial revolution was what the relationship between the natural world and humanity should be, a question that was intimately related to the issue of human population? Since the industrial revolution various societies had gone through a series of stages in terms of their relationship to the natural world a period of brute force rapaciousness unconcerned with environmental impacts followed by growing awareness and idealization of the natural world followed in the end by an increase in biological knowledge that allowed human beings to reverse, minimize, and isolate their impact on the biosphere.

Especially starting in the 22nd century, vast projects were launched that aimed to restore the natural world not merely to its conditions before the industrial revolution, but to those before human beings emerged from Africa over 10,000 years before. The rain forests of the world were restored.  The auroch was genetically recreated and re-established in much of Eurasia along with more common species such as wolves and boar. The ancient chestnut forests and species that relied on them such as the passenger pigeon have been restored in North America, and the estuaries are alive with fish in a way they have not been since at least the 19th century. All the major African species, especially the great apes, have been restored to pre-modern numbers and prehistoric hominids resurrected and established in their ancient homeland of the African savannah. Long extinct species likely killed off by the hunting prowess of early humans- the Woolly Mammoth, Saber Tooth Tiger, Ground Sloth, and Giant Beaver brought back into existence and reestablished in the tundra of Siberia, Canada, and an iceless Greenland.

A solid majority of human beings- nearly 70%- now live in high density cities a move that has not merely aided in decreasing human population because of city-dweller’s smaller family sizes, but shifted the human impact on the environment from diffuse to compact allowing nature to reclaim enormous tracts of non-urbanized space. Especially important in this decreased spatial impact is the movement of farming into the cities. Vast aeroponic vertical farms in urban centers now produce the majority of the world’s food. Much of the Great Plains in North America has reverted to grassland and wildflowers. The return of the Buffalo has even resulted in a small number of Native American Blackfoot to return to their long lost traditional lifestyle- though they have kept the post-columbus horse.

For the first time in history there is effective global management of the earth’s biosphere. The global environment is constantly monitored not only from satellites but from a whole host of animal embedded sensors and cameras that provide real-time 24/7 monitoring of the earth’s environment. Invasive species and destructive diseases are caught, isolated and removed at lightening fast speeds.

Sophisticated AI directed modeling allows for extremely detailed predictions as to environmental impact permitting the tailoring of industrial and agricultural projects to promote healthy ecosystems, and directs the movement and actions within the human geography to best meet the needs of wildlife and the larger ecosystem.

This earth-scale environmental management is just one sign of the vastly increased capacity for global governance that was developed from the late 21st century forward. It origins lie in crises of both an environmental and geopolitical nature which that century was thankfully able to overcome.

Various times from the 19th through the 21st century the world was torn between different imperial orders. The 19th century imperial order of the Europeans was replaced by the 20-21st century American (and for a shorter spell, Soviet) imperial regime. From the early 21st century not just East Asia but the world had to adjust to the appearance of China in the global arena.

The world was on the verge of thermonuclear war not one but 3 times: The Cuban Missile Crisis (1963)  the Russo-Japanese-Sino War fought over Chinese incursions into booming Siberia and the northern Pacific (2054) the Sino–Indian War, between China and India over China’s attempt to divert water from the Himalayas (2085). There was also a deep conflict between an alliance of “hot” countries and “cold” countries, that is between countries where the effects of climate change were sharp and devastating and those that had largely benefited from the change.

The Russo-Sino-Japanese war and the Sino-Indian war were both products not merely of the international order adjusting to the power of China but were responses to the reality of climate change. This eventually led to an alliance between China and many of the other hot countries that launched a policy to geo-engineer the world’s climate starting in 2095. In spite of worldwide protests and threats of war by the US and Russia, the hot countries began spewing tons of sunlight blocking sulfates into the atmosphere for a time turning the sky of the earth a gaudy orange. This did however have the intended effect, cooling the earth by almost 2 degrees and bringing rain and temperature distributions back to early 21st century norms. Disaster was averted but only at an incredible costs to humanity’s sense of itself and its relationship to the earth. The act did, however, start humanity on the right course.

Not even the massive migration flows of refugees fleeing from climate change got the world attention as much as the earth’s blue skies turning orange. The world came perilously close to war when an alliance of arctic countries- Russia, the US and Canada began shooting the tethered sulphur spewing Verne like Chinese dirigibles out of the sky. The Reykjavik Treaty which ended this conflict sparked a new era not only in the way human beings related to the earth’s environment but in the international relations between states. This new era of international cooperation was supported by a convergence in the systems of government found in most of the world’s countries and all of its major powers. The old argument between democracy and autocracy was no more.

Since the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions people had been arguing over whether democracy was the best form of government. What occurred by the late 21st century was a convergence in both democratic and authoritarian regimes towards a form of government sometimes called responsive democracy that was neither representative nor direct but continuously scanned the public for feedback and direction as to government policy in the same way companies used social media to establish consumer preferences. Critics of responsive democracy claimed that it was easily manipulated by vested interests who were able shape citizen preferences, and that it robbed the public of its democratic responsibility to deliberate and decide. Yet, the model seemed unstoppable and by giving people a real voice in the face of the dominant oligarchies did seem to quell social pressures in countries as vastly different as the US and China.

In the centuries between 1800 – 2500 the major religious, philosophical, and cultural disputes would center around the question of what humanity was and what it should become. The dispute could be traced to Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origins of Species in 1857. What did it mean for the present and future of humanity to say that it had evolved from “lesser” species?

The 19th and early 20th centuries had seen the application of the darker aspects of the idea of human evolution with both racially justified imperialism and the Nazis. From the 21st through the 23rd century conflicts raged between the traditionally religious, environmentalists, and various shades of transhumanism, disputes that included not merely ideological struggles but  inquisitions on all sides. Eventually, however, a widespread consensus began to take hold, a set of philosophical assumptions that lie underneath post-21st century understandings of the relationship between human beings and machines, the environment, and both domestic and international politics.

Humanity in a general sense was to be preserved on earth. Whatever their profound changes in health and longevity human beings  in this era were essentially the same as human beings 10,000 years before. Earthbound machines were preserved as servants, while those of above human intelligence sequestered in a slim number of domains. Genetic transformation of human beings outside the realm of increasing health, strength, longevity or biological intelligence was discouraged, and biological cures promoted over bio-mechanical ones.

Those who wanted bold experiments such as creating a race of chimeras with mixed human and mechanical features, to merging into collective intelligences, could still have them, they just had to be pursued, given their perceived dangers to the survival of humanity, outside of the earth. Mars became the key destination in this regard, a kind of laboratory for all things post-human, but there would also be great floating cities in the solar system and even the first colonies sent out to closest living planets beyond the solar system…

10,000 years

Human civilization has reached the 10% milestone. 20,000 years living settled life in cities. During this period human beings have been the dominant form of intelligence and, on earth at least, have succeeded in suppressing the new evolutionary kingdom  of the machines. This age is now coming to a close and traditional humans, still safe and thriving largely on earth, have receded far  into the background of the evolutionary story now playing out in the Milky Way.

Despite their diminished status in the grand scheme of things, life for earthbound human beings has never been better. The average human being can be expected to live over 1,000 years. With so much investment in what in formerly human terms was the long term prosperity of society human beings have never been so inclined not to wage war against one another or let their society go to rot. The commitments of individuals to society, to an art, to persons, are long indeed, although few human relationships can be sustained over such time periods and as a consequence there are well developed rituals for “letting go” of marriage partners of friends and for a surprisingly large number even life itself. By far the greatest human works of art are created in this period as are the deepest works of philosophy. This is the true age of the “long form” single songs that run for months, novels comprised of hundreds of individual books, memoirs of love and loss felt over centuries.

Outside of the earth, humans and many more post-humans have terra-formed Mars and perhaps a billion now call that planet home. Over the millennia an innumerable number of sister earths have been discovered within a thousand light years of the solar system, though no other technological civilization has been discovered so far. Post-humans settlers have long reached the nearest living planets.

The descendants and creations of humanity that have continued to evolve and differentiate into a bewildering variety of forms across the width of a 5,000 light year span surrounding the earth. A large number of these creatures  are the descendants of the silicon based forms humanity had invented far back in the 20th century- although silicon is no longer the dominant substrate and instead can be found a huge multiplicity of underlying elements.

1 million years

Humanity is now nearing the 2 million year mark, the average lifespan for a species.It has long since retired from the heart of things and watches with a mixture of awe and fear the goings on of the “gods” in the heavens.

Machines in space have begun an enormous surge of evolution akin to the Cambrian Explosion in the earth’s ancient history.  From the big-picture view it can be seen that the kingdom of machines has been a way for life to overcome its limitations and expand into a much greater range of cosmic real estate. Carbon based life had evolved and could only thrive in a very narrow niche of the universe- stellar bodies that were not so large that the effects of gravity overwhelmed those of chemical reactions and not so small  where the chemical reactions on which life was built did not occur with regularity.

Anywhere there is usable energy machines can be found, and in a diversity that matches that found in carbon based life- from the geothermal vents of a body like IO, where organisms are metallic-slugs able to withstand intense heat and pressure to the clouds of the gaseous giants where colonies of microscopic smart dust live off the planetary winds.

To study these forms in 21st century terms would require someone who combined the skills of an archaeologist an engineer and a biologist. Each machine form having a genealogy that tied it to some idiosyncrasy of human need and design in the distant past as well as evolving to meet the specific requirements of its own unique environment. Inside some of these machines can also be found still living biological cores- the machine itself being merely a means of survival and replication. One can only speculate as to the internal life of such beings whether the environment in which they currently live is the fabric of their consciousness or whether they live in a dream world of their past animal existence unaware as to their own current strangely transformed state.

If machine evolution allowed life to expand into vastness of space where gravitational dominance and chemical equilibrium formerly prevented it from taking root, there was also an expansion of life into brand new scales. The largest living organism ever found on earth, The Great Coral Reef, was a little over 1,200 miles (2000 km).  In terms of social animals a Roman Empire like ant colony grew to be nearly 4,000 (6000 km) on the European Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.  Human civilization grew from the African Savannah  to the earth, to the solar system, and near galactic living planets.  Still nothing would match the superorganisms that would emerge from machines which would eventually grow to reach not merely a planetary, stellar, or solar system, but galactic and multi-galactic scales.

There were also scales below that of molecular that life, especially complex life, was unable to tap. Only the simplest of living organisms could exist on such small scales. Machine life, however, was able to move a million scales down to the range of atoms themselves becoming not merely the “living atomic scale matter” of some larger forms which thus even more strongly resembled organic life, but became a whole habitable zone unto itself, the home of the mechanical versions of bacteria the truly dominant form of both the organic and the mechanical world.

All this is very dangerous for organic life ,which not only continues to exist but thrives in the “cracks”- areas that are free from the terrestrially unbound silicon descendants. An enormous explosion of life, including intelligent life, is taking root in these cracks.  Some of these are descendants of earth based life, but most have arisen completely independently. Whole civilizations rise and fall unaware of the story that plays out above them in the realm of the stars. And still, this remains merely the beginning of the beginning…

1 billion years

Humanity has long ceased to exist though the ultimate cause of their demise is unknown. The most likely scenario being that its defenses were worn down by the forays of some superorganism though there are rumors that the machine defenses humanity had built were themselves the culprit. Life, in one form or another, however, continues to move on. In fact, we have entered the golden age of life in both carbon based and silicon forms. The increasing amount of complex elements, especially of carbon from stars means that life is taking root on more and more planets, the story of evolution playing out across a diverse landscape of enormous scope. In this “lower world”, the world under the stars, stems a vast cacophony of forms- the splendor of life filling all the spaces of its possibility.  Among these are a plethora of intelligent species and civilizations a great number which live out histories of creation and destruction with far too many destroying themselves upon reaching nuclear maturity.

Still, a good number, perhaps a slim majority, survive. From these civilizations come not merely art, music, stories, ideas, but also biographies- beings who have not merely lived but  represent as it were a path of life, a story, embedded in the very fabric of reality. Silicon descendants, not just from the earth, but many places besides are likewise entering a new and golden phase.

Organic life is somewhat protected from the intrusions, exploitation or destruction at the hands of silicon based forms by the vastness of space and from the sheer diversity of environments where silicon forms are able to find usable energy. There is also, however, a new tendency for silicon protect the carbon based life from which it ultimately emerged.

It is unknown how this happened but it is thought that some especially prudent civilization programmed its machines with the purpose of protecting its organic progenitor. Somehow this purposing went rogue and there are quite a number of silicon forms that offer spheres of protection to not just the organic life forms from which they emerged but for all organic life they come across.

There appears to have been an unforeseen evolutionary advantage to this strategy.  With the evolutionary experiments that emerges out of carbon based life being seen like the ancient invention of sex- a way to gain new “genes” and through diversity increase resilience. Some very patient and hands- off silicon based forms use carbon-based worlds as running simulations from which they can glean ways to increase their own internal complexity. Though, a good number have taken to actually “cultivating” intelligence on worlds- driving evolution in the direction of creating an intelligent species with technological potential from which they can glean even more diversity.

For those still living on planets the night sky has become even more brilliant than in the age of lifeless stars. A show of lights in unspeakably brilliant patterns the glow of enormous silicon descendants “talking” to one another across the vast stretches of space. Now is the age in which the “music of the spheres” has become real for not only is there light the cities in the skies sing to one another as well in music we can not even dream.

Reflections on Abundance

Great Chain of Being and the Feudal Orders

 

It is hard to avoid getting swept up in the utopian optimism of Peter Diamandis.  The world he presents in his Abundance: The Future is Better Than you Think is certainly the kind of future I would hope for all of us: the earth’s environment saved and its energy costless, public health diseases, global hunger and thirst eradicated, quality education and health care ubiquitous (not to mention cheap) and, above, all extreme poverty at long last conquered.

 The way Diamandis gets us from here to there is almost all a matter of increasing efficiency through technological innovation. The efficiency of solar cells is rising exponentially along with a whole suite of clean energy options from fuel producing organisms created through synthetic biology to Fourth Generation nuclear power plants that not only manage to not produce any radioactive byproduct, they are safe from Three Mile Island style disasters, consume old nuclear waste and are so small they actually don’t need anyone to run them.

 Then there is the future of toilets. Hypothetical sewage systems that in addition to not using any of our precious water, can use human waste as a home brewed power source, and produce a natural form of agricultural fertilizer to boot. Access to a clean toilet is actually a very big deal. 2.5 billion people on earth do not have access to a clean toilet with the effect that 1,800 children die needlessly from waste borne illness each day.

Amazingly enough more people have access to cellphones than clean toilets as the use of the former has exploded over the preceding decade, and with this factoid appeared my first doubts regarding Diamandis’ assumptions, but for now let’s stick to the optimism of solutions.

 Far too many people go hungry in the world today, 925 million or one out of every 7 of us, according to Diamandis (102), but that might be about to get a whole lot worse. That’s because the world’s population is rapidly headed towards 9 billion while our ability to increase agricultural yields in the way we did with the Green Revolution has stalled. Thankfully, Diamandis sees technological solutions on the horizon- genetically modified crops, including one of the best ideas I have heard in years that of “golden rice”, that is rice fortified with the essential and often missing vitamin in the diet of the poor- Vitamin A.  There are also vertical farms where crops are grown using aeroponics, giving a whole new meaning to “locally grown” along with bringing agriculture into the “internet of things” equipping plants and animals with sensors that give constant feedback and allow the meticulous allocation of water, nutrients, light, temperature and pesticides. There is also the long promised “meat in a vat” promising a final rapprochement between carnivores and herbivores everywhere. World running out of fresh water? No problem, technologies are in the works that can cheaply realize the perennial human dream of turning the salted oceans into a drinkable Niagara.

 Then there is the education of tomorrow: if much of essential learning in the world today is either absent, as in large parts of the developing world, or composed of factory age style education that lumps children into groups and stamps them out like Model T’s, technology promises to solve that too. Salman Khan, whose Academy I love, has brought learning to anyone with an internet connection. Massive Open Online Courses -MOOCS- have done Khan one better and are now bringing the classrooms of elite universities to the masses. Advances in artificial intelligence promise a future where every child (and perhaps adult) has their own customized tutor and moves through the world of knowledge not based on some cookie cutter idea of what an educated person looks like, but based on their own interests, abilities and learning styles.

 The doctorless masses, especially those in the developing world, are about to get their own personal assistants as well- automated nurses and doctors brought to them through the miracle of their cell phone and other wireless technology.

 All these developments Diamandis hopes will raise the world’s bottom billion up through Maslow’s Pyramid to the point where the bear struggle to survive no longer prevents individuals from pursuing self-actualization. A billion new entrants to the global economy will make a damned good consumer market to boot.

 Every bone in my body hopes Diamadis’ predictions bear fruit and believes we should push forward at every level, both public and private, technological innovations to address many of the world’s problems. There are, however, a number of big- questions Diamandis does not address- issues like inequality and technological unemployment, and the tensions between globalization and democracy- that should give us pause when it comes to the essentials of Diamadis’ argument which in a nutshell boils down to this: that most of the world’s deepest problems are to be solved by the application of technology to increase efficiency, and that a good deal of these solutions will be spurred on by a class that combines aspects of business, science and technology. and philanthropy, the so called techno-philanthropists of which Diamandis counts himself.

 Inequality gets barely a mention in Abundance and when it does it is brought up in the carbon cutout form of “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer” only to be dispatched with with a wave of Diamandis’ hand. Sometimes the things unmentioned in a good book on closer inspection turn out to be somehow deeply interwoven with the author’s underlying assumptions. The primary target of Abundance is not how to get the sputtering US economy back into motion it is how technology might be used to get the horribly poor 2.5 billion people who struggle on a little more than a dollar a day out of such extreme poverty without as a consequence wrecking the planet. Behind these billions of the poor lies a sad statistic that reveals a great deal about the nature of our new global economy that, as David Rothkopf puts it in his Superclass, The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making:

 

The reality is that the combined net worth of the world’s richest thousand or so people- the planet’s billionaires- is almost twice that of the poorest 2.5 billion. (xv)

 I do not know what it is like going to sleep knowing that you own more than hundreds of millions of people many of whom live in conditions you would not think fit for your pets, but somewhere it has to pull on the conscience. When you hold Diamandis’ argument in your hand and spin it so that you can see it from the view of the bottom up what you get, I think, is a kind of shaving off of these sharp edges of egregious human inequality in order to justify what amounts to a still pretty extreme view of what “normal” inequality looks like. It’s a hell of alot easier to justify your G550 when millions of children aren’t living in garbage.

 The fact that Diamandis’ argument is at bottom a justification for an only somewhat less extreme form of today’s unprecedented levels of inequality can be seen in one of the primary vectors through which he thinks the “bottom billion” will be raised out of the most dehumanizing poverty not nation states, international institutions, or world government, but those Diamandis calls “techno-philanthropists” that is people with both the technological prowess and the capital to solve the major energy, food, water, education and communication problems that he holds responsible for extreme poverty. His models for this are not only Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an institution that I do believe when the history books are written will be remembered as one of the most positive and impactful initiatives of the early 21st century, but also the old “robber barons” of the late 19th century of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. For Diamandis the robber barons were economically transformative figures that in addition left a lasting cultural and educational legacy that has benefited us all. Doubtless, but then no mention is made of how the likes of Carnegie achieved this enormous wealth he could use for our benefit by earning ten thousand times the salary of his lowest paid workers. (Superclass 102)

 Diamandis is speaking from the perspective of a global elite, the people who hobnob at Davos, and whip up sleek versions of saving the world at TED, people that quite rightly, and much unlike the provincial bumpkins of American national politics, are conscious of the enormous problems found in the world. Diamandis thinks the solution to these problems is an increase in technological efficiency which only raises questions when one remembers that is this very efficiency which is the source of the global elites enormous wealth in the first place, and is an area where their global interests collides head on with the economic and social reality of the developed world’s democracies from which most of this elite still hails.

 Like Carnegie and Rockefeller and unlike many of the elites of old today’s superclass have their money and the power that comes with it because they have been transformative figures and have largely affected this transformation through quantum leaps in  efficiency- for those old enough- think of how difficult it was to find information before Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented Google, or how easy Jeff Bezos’s Amazon made shopping for books or anything else or how expensive necessities were before Sam Walton built Walmart. Diamandis promises more of these revolutions in efficiency this time targeted directly at the world’s poorest. Yet already there is an elephant in the room.

 The largely unacknowledged problem is that globalization and the revolutions brought about by the continued progress of Moore’s Law have been of enormous benefit to the developing world and a decidedly mixed bag for the developed countries. To quote John Cassidy from the New Yorker from back in 2011: 

To me, what is really, really alarming is this: a typical American male who works full time and still has a job is earning almost exactly the same now as his counterpart was back in 1972, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, O. J. Simpson rushed a thousand yards for the Buffalo Bills, and Don McLean topped the charts with “American Pie”

 Both globalization and Moore’s Law enabled revolutions have, however,  been a miracle for the world’s poor- especially those of the world’s two most populous countries China and India- something the ever entertaining Hans Rosling brings home with gusto here.  The uplifting effects of globalization are now, at long last, even being felt in Africa, and Diamandis is right to point out the profound changes cell phones have brought to that continent.

 How is such a discrepancy between the rich/developed and poor/developing world to be explained? I think at least part of it can be explained this way:  if technological innovation is all about creative destruction then perhaps the developed and developing world do not get the two in equal measure. This is because in the developed world there is an awful lot to destroy. Cell phones in North America, Europe and Japan replaced well established landlines, whereas cell phones in the developing world had very little to replace at all. Automation has been in a generation long race with the poorly paid factory workers of the developing world as to which could produce goods more cheaply, but both left developed world manufacturing workers in the dust. Diamandis’ prescriptions fails to acknowledge this disconnect of globalization and technological innovation in terms of their varied impact on developed and developing economies to merely embrace the trend.

 It is one thing to replace nurses with cell phone apps where few nurses are to be found-the situation in the developing world- and quite another in an economy such as that of the US where not only do millions make their living doing such tasks but where we have spent a decade or more pushing people towards this career on account of a looming shortage of health care workers. Replacing non-existent teachers with AI tutors is all well and good where there are very few teachers to begin with, but what do you do when you have millions of people who have committed themselves to this noble profession who have been replaced by self-directed videos or a teaching bot?

 We have seen the idea that globalization and technology has the effect of pushing down wages for the majority while creating at the same time a spiked world of the super-wealthy before. This was essentially the future as written by Karl Marx- a still relevant  thinker who gets no mention from Diamandis. Marx might have been widely off in terms of his historical timeline, but correctly identified the deep trend of capitalism to push in this direction. If we are at the beginning stages of developing something like Marx’s bi-polar class system we might ask what took these predictions so long in coming about? Marx missed a lot of things- from the strength of unions to the willingness of the state to act against the interest of economic actors, which were important in delaying his predictions but tangential here.

 Someone might have been able to prove to Marx, writing in the 1800s, that his ideas were going to take a long time to be anywhere close to reality with the simple exercise of asking him how long he thought it would take until the majority of available occupations would be replaced by mechanized labor or labor so simplified that it could be done by a human being with even the most rudimentary education. How long would it take before there was an automated doctor, automated lawyer, automated journalist like Marx himself. How long would it be until shopkeepers and bureaucrats could be replaced by machines? For it was fields such as these that exploded in growth after the decline of the craft guilds and the mechanization of agriculture, both brought about by machines and the new ideas regarding the division of labor in which workers were turned into cogs of production. Marx might have then seen that the near future in front of him would be less likely to be the age of revolution than a golden age of the middle class as societies were able to tap millions of workers who had been let loose by the end of the craft guilds and above all the mechanization of the farms and put then to work at non-automated tasks. Today’s situation might prove different because the kinds of innovations we are pushing towards, for the developed economies, might end up leaving far too many people without a job. Unless that is we can come up with a whole host of occupations that will remain off limits to AI for quite some time.

 I have no real solution to this dilemma other than to caution skepticism towards the all too common view that technology is somehow a panacea to all, rather than just some, of our problems and that innovation is merely a matter of gain without real and profound costs. Above all, I would warn against attempts to read our present condition as somehow indicative of the “destiny” of life, our world, or the universe itself or at least not in ways where such views can be used as justifications for what in the end remain political decisions.

 Towards the beginning of Abundance Diamandis presents a picture of the evolution of life moving through stages of specialization and cooperation from the singular prokaryotes to the cooperative eukaryotes with their internal specialization to multicellular organisms. Diamandis leaning on Robert Wright takes this story of specialization and cooperation up another level to us and our global civilization built on yet greater specialization and complexity. In a separate article that in some sense is merely an extension of the argument proposed by Diamandis Wright discusses the rise of the internet and the way it has allowed human beings to weave themselves together, asking:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

 On the one hand this view rings true to me, but then I start to think about the life and nature of our 21st century elites who have thrown off their ties to the local and the national to live their lives enmeshed in global networks of the rich and powerful. Innovators who have built, own, and control the very networks through which a world that is for the first time in history truly one has come about. People who whatever their virtues reap enormous benefits from the wealth they possess and the power they exercise, who  already act in some sense like Wright’s “planetary brain”. It’s then that I remember how invisibly political such ideas are and wonder- was there ever an age where the elites of the day did not see their own reign written into the very fabric of the universe itself?